R.E.M. - New Adventures in Hi-Fi (Surround Sound)

New Adventures in Hi-Fi

[DVD-Audio / CD Edition]

(Warner Bros.)

First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2005, Volume 12, #4

Written by John Metzger


New Adventures in Hi-Fi, the tenth studio outing in R.E.M.’s canon, should have been an utter disaster. In the wake of the mammoth success of Automatic for the People, the band was struggling to find direction, and in an attempt to recapture the urgency of its early albums, it opted to write and record material while on an 11-month tour in support of its most unimaginative effort Monster. Further complicating matters was the fact that during its sojourn, drummer Bill Berry suffered a life-threatening brain aneurysm, singer Michael Stipe was rushed into surgery to treat an inguinal hernia, and bass player Mike Mills, after complaining of abdominal pain, was hospitalized to treat an adhesion of his small intestine. Such serious health problems are bound to make a group become reflective, and not surprisingly, much of its new collection of songs dealt with the issue of mortality, though it was delivered with the sort of wearily disconnected sense of loneliness and despair that only an endless stream of nearly identical hotel rooms and concert arenas could provide.

With or without these difficulties, R.E.M. was facing a mid-life crisis, but even if New Adventures in Hi-Fi was too much of a hodgepodge — both lyrically and musically — to be considered anything close to perfect, it did manage to pull the band out of its creative funk. For the record, the group never has been one to make dramatic shifts in its sonic palette, although an examination of its catalog in 10-year increments yields striking alterations in its sound. Indeed, Murmur is quite distinct from Automatic for the People, which in turn is remarkably different from Around the Sun. Yet, the progressions revealed on the intervening outings were little more than a series of slow, gradual steps in directions that went both forward and backward.

The underlying plan for New Adventures in Hi-Fi was to unite the road’s urgency with the aural textures available in a recording studio. This served as the impetus for rejuvenating R.E.M.’s interest in experimentation, thereby allowing it to regain its momentum. Though large portions of the album were devoted to the crunchy, arena-sized rock of Monster — a product, no doubt, of the songs’ geneses at a series of pre-show sound checks — there definitely was something greater at stake on this album as opposed to its last effort. For example, the rousing fury of The Wake-Up Bomb was enveloped within a murkily ominous swirl of organ, and this, along with the many other subtle shadings that graced the material on New Adventures in Hi-Fi, has become even more prominent in the album’s recent incarnation as a DVD-Audio set. In fact, its surround-sound headiness — from the dissonantly jazz-tinged piano chords that blossom from the center of How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us to Patti Smith’s ghostly backing vocals on E-Bow the Letter and from the crackling distortion of Undertow to the spiraling, black hole-ish gravity of Leave — significantly improves the best moments on the outing simply by adding an emotional dimensionality to the material that previously had been submerged beneath the tracks’ grey-toned arrangements.

Whether Stipe is commenting on the spread of American consumerism in How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us, decrying the growth of seedy talk shows on New Test Leper, or simply relaying R.E.M’s collective yearning to escape from its rut and rediscover its artistic drive — most notably on Bittersweet Me, Leave, and The Wake-Up Bomb — the tunes inevitably become more compelling in their newly minted, three-dimensional state, and as a result, they resonate more greatly than ever. Of course, it helps to have a halfway decent batch of songs with which to work, but if technology can salvage a middling, transitional effort such as New Adventures in Hi-Fi, perhaps it also can resuscitate rock ’n‘ roll itself. starstarstar ½

New Adventures in Hi-Fi [CD/DVD] is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!


Copyright © 2005 The Music Box